Zombies as intelligent agents? No way…

zombie thinking

The blog of inimitable zombie theorist Jack Flacco had an interesting post today, about zombies as pack hunters:

Wolves hunt in packs. One wolf is no match against the formidable majesty of an elk. But a pack of wolves can take down the beast without much effort, and share in its spoil. At first glance, zombie behavior seems to match that of wolves—hunting in packs, following their prey until it becomes fatigued, and sharing in the bounty. However, differences remain. This is Monday Mayhem, and these are my thoughts regarding zombie pack hunting.

Except for a few films, the majority depict zombies as pack hunters. The typical scenario involves a human stumbling in the midst of a zombie infested feeding ground and becoming the quarry in a quick game of cat and mouse against a horde of undead.

For the pack hunter idea to hold true, it would mean zombies would have to exhibit some form of intelligence in order to coordinate attacks against their victim. Given what we know about zombies—their lack of intellect, agility, and cooperation—coordinated attacks seem unlikely.

Wolves, on the other hand will organize into groups, stalk their prey, and give chase until it falls by the wayside. Should the prey enter a body of water, the pack will lay low while two or more of the ravenous killers stand guard by the edge.

Another difference with zombies and known pack hunters lies in their organization. A pack’s classic configuration contains an Alpha. He’s the dominant male that leads the pack to perform dastardly deeds of horror. Chimpanzees demonstrate this attribute in the wild when two males vie for the top position in the clan. A good example of the Alpha male conflict plays well in the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

So if differences exist between the animal kingdom and zombie packs, what kind of hierarchy do the undead follow?

Zombies function on instinct. Yes, very much like animals. The main component to their internal makeup is their sense of tracking. When one of them spots a potential victim, others in the vicinity respond likewise. You might want to call it a built-in GPS. You can see this behavior at work in movies such as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later.

Other than I Am Legend, which some consider a vampire flick, the Alpha male is missing in popular zombie movies. If anything, the undead act upon external stimuli in a uniformed and structured fashion. If one smells human, they all smell human. Thus, the chase begins. Soldiers can eliminate the front line of an advancing undead army, but zombies are too dumb to know when to give up. They’ll continue forward until every human becomes the evening’s main dish.

Inasmuch even I would enjoy seeing zombies emulate wolf pack behavior, the undead have their own agenda. I’m sure one day someone will come up with the idea of having an Alpha male leading a pack of zombies through an apocalypse. Until then, we have to wait and enjoy what we currently have at our disposal.

I think what Jack needs is the ideal of “cellular automata,” and so I replied with the following:

I must disagree with those who claim (a la The Walking Dead) that zombies hunt in packs (other than perhaps Big Daddy as an Alpha in the oddball Land of the Dead). In my opinion, every zombie is an autonomous agent looking out only for itself. However, much like ants and other social insects, the behavior of many zombies together produces what’s called “emergent behavior.” For example, one ant alone is lost, seems to have completely random movements, and will usually die fairly quickly. When a colony of ants works together, even though every single ant would be lost and purposeless, the group as a whole hunts, builds structures, and so on. How can this be, and why might zombies be like this?

The answer lies in the fact that complex emergent behavior in a group can arise from a simple set of rules used by each individual. (See a nice demonstration at http://math.hws.edu/xJava/CA/CA.html.) The rule may be as simple as “If I am close to another individual like me, keep a certain amount of distance. If it turns, follow. If there is no one in front of me, follow the individual behind me. If there is no one next to me, seek food and navigate toward it.” In these simple rules (or something very much like them), we get the flocking behavior of birds, for example. One bird by itself is kind of stupid, but together you have the Swallows of Capistrano.

I believe zombies would work the same way. Since every zombie is a mindless entity, it would be contradictory to say that (a) one of them would be differentiated enough to be a leader or that (b) any other zombies would recognize that zombie as a leader anyway. Far more likely, and far more in keeping with other beings in the natural world with little or no cognitive power, is that part of being a zombie is being imprinted with certain rules like “When possible, pursue food and eat” and “when individual next to you moves, and you have no eating to be done right at that moment, follow that individual.” This way, if one zombie spots prey and goes after it, even the zombies who didn’t see the prey follow along and BAM! Instant “pack hunting,” but with no need for intelligent behavior.



4 thoughts on “Zombies as intelligent agents? No way…

  1. All it takes is someone to have the thought and structure such as Richard Matheson had when he wrote The Omega Man (I Am Legend) to give them a plausible history and ability and it could be believable. Just as Vampires have evolved and have many different legends. There are no specific evolutionary moments in zombie history. I think it is possible but if you are basing your opinion on what is already out there then no, they aren’t intelligent enough to have pack mentality and have an Alpha. There just happened to be 50 zombies around when they sensed fresh blood and those 50 zombies just happened to chase the same food. They weren’t helping each other, they were just running off instinct. It’s not pack mentality, it was food shortage. *shrugs* Maybe.

  2. I, who know nothing of zombies, let alone their behavior, commend you on an intuitive and comprehensible disagreement with the Wolf Pack mentality. After seeing Mr. Flacco’s reply, I had to go back and re-read his post. At first, I thought he was pointing out that zombies DID exhibit pack behavior. I also need to have another look at I Am Legend. Zombies? Maybe I saw it before there was such a to-do about the apocalypse, et al, so I didn’t recognize them as such.

  3. I’m a huge fan of complex emergent behavior, hence the post I’d written today. World War Z does a phenomenal job showing this trait among the zombies. That’s why the pack mentality doesn’t jive for me when it comes to the undead. Packs have to have an Alpha. Quite frankly, other than Land of the Dead, zombies do not possess the intellect to work in packs.

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